Francis Jeffrey Jeffrey.

Selections from the essays of Francis Jeffrey online

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considered, that there is an universal tendency to the
propagation of such a taste ; and that, in times tolerably
favourable to human happiness, there is a continual 15
progress and improvement in this, as in the other faculties
of nations and large assemblages of men. The number
of intelligent judges may therefore be regarded as
perpetually on the increase. The inner circle, to which
the poet delights chieliy to pitch his voice, is perpetually 20
enlarging ; and, looking to that great futurity to which
his ambition is constantly directed, it may be found, that
the most refined style of composition to which he can
attain, will be, at the last, the most extensively and
permanently popular. This holds true, we think, with 25
regard to all the productions of art that are open to the
inspection of any considerable part of the community ;
but, with regard, to poetry in particular, there is one
circumstance to be attended to, that renders this conclu-
sion peculiarly safe, and goes far indeed to reconcile the 30
taste of the multitude with that of more cultivated

As it seems difficult to conceive that mere cultivation
should either absolutely create or utterly destroy any


natural capacity of enjoyment, it is not easy to suppose,
that the quaUties which dehght the uninstructed should
be siibstatitially different from those which give pleasure
to the enlightened. They may be arranged according to
5 a different scale, — and certain shades and accompani-
ments may be more or less indispensable ; but the quali-
ties in a poem that give most pleasure to the refined and
fastidious critic, are in substance, we believe, the very
same that delight the most injudicious of its admirers: —

10 and the very wide difference which exists between their
usual estimates, may be in a great degree accounted for,
by considering, that the one judges absolutely, and the
other relatively — that the one attends only to the intrin-
sic qualities of the work., while the other refers more

IS immediately to the merit of the author. The most popular
passages in popular poetry, are in fact, for the most part,
very beautiful and striking ; yet they are very often such
passages as could never be ventured on by any writer
who aimed at the praise of the judicious ; and this, for

2o the obvious reason, that they are trite and hackneyed, —
that they have been repeated till they have lost all grace
and propriety, — and, instead of exalting the imagination
by the impression of original genius or creative fancy,
only nauseate and offend, by the association of paltry

25 plagiarism and impudent inanity. It is only, however,
on those who have read and remembered the original
passages, and their better imitations, that this effect
is produced. To the ignorant and .the careless, the
twentieth imitation has all the charm of an original ; and

30 that which oppresses the more experienced reader with
weariness and disgust, rouses them with all the force and
vivacity of novelty. It is not then, because the orna-
ments of popular poetry are deficient in intrinsic worth
and beauty, that they are slighted by the critical reader,


but because he at once recognises them to be stolen, and
perceives that they are arranged without taste or con-
gruity. In his indignation at the dishonesty, and his
contempt for the poverty of the collector, he overlooks
altogether the value of what he has collected, or remem- 5
bers it only as an aggravation of his offence, — as con-
verting larceny into sacrilege, and adding the guilt of
profanation to the folly of unsuitable finery. There are
other features, no doubt, that distinguish the idols of
vulgar admiration from the beautiful exemplars of pure 10
taste ; but this is so much the most characteristic and
remarkable, that we know no way in which we could so
shortly describe" the poetry that pleases the multitude,
and displeases the select few, as by saying that it con-
sisted of all the most known and most brilliant parts of 15
the most celebrated authors, — of a splendid and unmean-
ing accumulation of those images and phrases which had
long charmed every reader in the works of their original

The justice of these remarks will probably be at once 20
admitted by all who have attended to the history and
effects of what may be called Poetical diction in general,
or even of such particular phrases and epithets as have
been indebted to their beauty for too great a notoriety.
Our associations with all this class of expressions, which 25
have become trite only in consequence of their intrinsic
excellence, now suggest to us no ideas but those of
schoolboy imbecility and childish affectation. We look
upon them merely as the common, hired, and tawdry
trappings of all who wish to put on, for the hour, the 30
masquerade habit of poetry; and, instead of receiving
from them any kind of delight or emotion, do not even
distinguish or attend to the signification of the words of
which they consist. The ear is so palled with their


repetition, and so accustomed to meet with them as the
habitual expletives of the lowest class of versifiers, that
they come at last to pass over it without exciting any
sort of conception whatever, and tire not even so much
5 attended to as to expose their most gross incoherence or
inconsistency to detection. It is of this quality that
Swift has availed himself in so remarkable a manner, in
his famous " Song by a person of quality," which consists
entirely in a selection of some of the most trite and well-

lo sounding phrases and epithets in the poetical lexicon of
the time, strung together without any kind of meaning or
consistency, and yet so disposed, as to have been perused,
perhaps by one half of their readers, without any suspi-
cion of the deception. Most of those phrases, however,

15 which had thus become sickening, and almost insignificant,
to the intelligent readers of poetry in the days of Queen
Anne, are in themselves beautiful and expressive, and, no
doubt, retain much of their native grace in those ears
that have not been alienated by their repetition.

20 But it is not merely from the use of much excellent
diction, that a modern poet is thus debarred by the
lavishness of his predecessors. There is a certain range
of subjects and characters, and a certain manner and
tone, which were probably, in their origin, as graceful

25 and attractive, which have been proscribed by the same
dread of imitation. It would be too long to enter, in this
place, into any detailed examination of the peculiarities
— originating chiefly in this source — which distinguish
ancient from modern poetry. It may be enough just to

30 remark, that, as the elements of poetical emotion are
necessarily limited, so it was natural for those who first
sought to excite it, to avail themselves of those subjects,
situations, and images, that were most obviously calcu-
lated to produce that effect ; and to assist them by the


use of all those aggravating circumstances that most
readily occurred as likely to heighten their operation. In
this way, they may be said to have got possession of all
the choice materials of their art ; and, working without
fear of comparisons, fell naturally into a free and grace- 5
ful style of execution, at the same time that the profusion
of their resources made them somewhat careless and
inexpert in their application. After-poets were in a very
different situation. They could neither take the most
natural and general topics of interest, nor treat them 10
with the ease and indifference of those who had the whole
store at their command — because this was precisely what
had been already done by those who had gone before
them : And they were therefore put upon various expedi-
ents for attaining their object, and yet preserving their 15
claim to originality. Some of them accordingly set them-
selves to observe and delineate both characters and
external objects with greater minuteness and fidelity, —
and others to analyse more carefully the mingling
passions of the heart, and to feed and cherish a more 20
limited Irain of emotion, through a longer and more
artful succession of incidents, — while a third sort dis-
torted both nature and passion, according to some fan-
tastical theory of their own ; or took such a narrow
corner of each, and dissected it with such curious and 25
microscopic accuracy, that its original form was no longer
discernible by the eyes of the uninstructed. In this way
we think that modern poetry has both been enriched with
more exquisite pictures and deeper and more sustained
strains of pathetic, than were known to the less elaborate 30
artists of antiquity ; at the same time that it has been
defaced with more affectation, and loaded with far more
intricacy. But whether they failed or succeeded, — and
whether they distinguished themselves from their prede-


cessors by faults or by excellences, the later poets, we
conceive, must be admitted to have almost always written
in a more constrained and narrow manner than their
originals, and to have departed farther from what was
5 obvious, easy, and natural. Modern poetry, in this
respect, may be compared, perhaps, without any great
impropriety, to modern sculpture. It is greatly inferior
to the ancient in freedom, grace, and simplicity ; but, in
return, it frequently possesses a more decided expression ;

10 and more fine finishing of less suitable embellishments.

Whatever may be gained or lost, however, by this

change of manner, it is obvious, that poetry must become

less popular by means of it : For the most natural and

obvious manner, is always the most taking ; — and what-

15 ever costs the author much pains and labour, is usually
found to require a corresponding effort on the part of the
reader, — which all readers are not disposed to make.
That they who seek to be original by means of affecta-
tion, should revolt more by their affectation than they

20 attract by their originality, is just and natural; but even
the nobler devices that win the suffrages of the judicious
by their intrinsic beauty, as well as their novelty, are apt
to repel the multitude, and to obstruct the popularity of
some of the most exquisite productions of genius. The

25 beautiful but minute delineations of such admirable
observers as Crabbe or Cowper, are apt to appear tedious
to those who take little interest in their subjects, and
have no concern about their art ; — and the refined, deep,
and sustained pathetic of Campbell, is still more apt to

30 be mistaken for monotony and languor by those who are
either devoid of sensibility, or impatient of quiet reflec-
tion. The most popular style undoubtedly is that which
has great variety and brilliancy, rather than exquisite
finish in its images and descriptions ; and which touches


lightly on many passions, without raising any so high as
to transcend the comprehension of ordinary mortals —
or dwelling on it so long as to exhaust their patience.

Whether Mr. Scott holds the same opinion with us
upon these matters, and has intentionally conformed his 5
practice to this theory, — or whether the peculiarities in
his compositions have been produced merely by following
out the natural bent of his genius, we do not presume to
determine : But, that he has actually made use of all our
recipes for popularity, we think very evident ; and con- 10
ceive, that few things are more curious than the singular
skill, or good fortune, with which he has reconciled his
claims on the favour of the multitude, with his preten-
sions to more select admiration. Confident in the force
and originality of his own genius, he has not been afraid 15
to avail himself of common-places both of diction and of
sentiment, whenever they appeared to be beautiful or
impressive, — using them, however, at all times, with the
skill and spirit of an inventor ; and, quite certain that he
could not be mistaken for a plagiarist or imitator, he has 20
made free use of that great treasury of characters, images,
and expressions, wliich had been accumulated by the
most celebrated of his predecessors, — at the same time
that the rapidity of his transitions, the novelty of his
combinations, and the spirit and variety of his own 25
thoughts and inventions, show plainly that he was a
borrower from anything but poverty, and took only what
he would have give?i, if he had been born in an earlier
generation. The great secret of his popularity, however,
and the*leading characteristic of his poetry, appear to us 3°
to consist evidently in this, that he has made more use
of common topics, images, and expressions, than any
original poet of later times ; and, at the same time, dis-
played more genius and originality than any recent


author who has worked in 'the same materials. By the
latter peculiarity, he has entitled himself to the admira-
tion of every description of readers ; — by the former, he
is recommended in an especial manner to the inexperi-
5 enced — at the hazard of some little offence to the more
cultivated and fastidious.

In the choice of his subjects, for example, he does
not attempt to interest merely by fine observations or
pathetic sentiment, but takes the assistance of a story,

lo and enlists the reader's curiosity among his motives for
attention. Then his characters are all selected from the
most common dra77iatis personce of poetry ; — kings, war-
riors, knights, outlaws, nuns, minstrels, secluded damsels,
wizards, and true lovers. He never ventures to carry us

15 into the cottage of the modern peasant, like Crabbe or
Cowper ; nor into the bosom of domestic privacy, like
Campbell ; nor among creatures of the imagination, like
Southey or Darwin. Such personages, we readily admit,
are not in themselves so interesting or striking as those

20 to whom Mr. Scott has devoted himself ; but they are
far less familiar in poetry — and are therefore more likely,
perhaps, to engage the attention of those to whom poetry
is familiar. In the management of the passions, again,
Mr. Scott appears to us to have pursued the same

25 popular, and comparatively easy course. He has raised
all the most familiar and poetical emotions, by the most
obvious aggravations, and in the most compendious and
judicious ways. He has dazzled the reader with the
splendour, and even warmed him with the transient heat

30 of various affections ; but he has nowhere fairly kindled
him with enthusiasm, or melted him into tenderness.
Writing for the world at large, he has wisely abstained
from attempting to raise any passion to a height to which
worldly people could not be transported ; and contented


himself with giving his reader the chance of feehng, as a
brave, kind, and affectionate gentlemen must often feel
in the ordinary course of his existence, without trying to
breathe into him either that lofty enthusiasm which dis-
dains the ordinary business and amusements of life, or 5
that quiet and deep sensibility which unfits for most of
its pursuits. With regard to diction and imagery, too, it
is quite obvious that Mr. Scott has not aimed at writing
either in a very pure or a very consistent style. He
seems to have been anxious only to strike, and to be 10
easily and universally understood ; and, for this purpose,
to have culled the most glittering and conspicuous ex-
pressions of the most popular authors, and to have
interwoven them in splendid confusion with his own ner-
vous diction and irregular versification. Indifferent 15
whether he coins or borrows, and drawing with equal
freedom on his memory and his imagination, he goes
boldly forward, in full reliance on a never-failing
abundance ; and dazzles, with his richness and variety,
even those who are most apt to be offended with his 20
glare and irregularity. There is nothing, in Mr. Scott, of
the severe and majestic style of Milton — or of the terse
and fine composition of Pope — or of the elaborate
elegance and melody of Campbell — or even of the
flowing and redundant diction of Southey. — But there is 25
a medley of bright images and glowing words, set care-
lessly and loosely together — a diction, tinged succes-
sively with the careless richness of Shakespeare, the
harshness and antique simplicity of the old romances,
the homeliness of vulgar ballads and anecdotes, and 30
the sentimental glitter of the most modern poetry, —
passing from the borders of the ludicrous to those of the
sublime — alternately minute and energetic — sometimes
artificial, and frequently negligent — but always full of


spirit and vivacity, — abounding in images that are
striking, at first sight, to minds of every contexture —
and never expressing a sentiment which it can cost the
most ordinary reader any exertion to comprehend.
5 Such seem to be the leading qualities that have con-
tributed to Mr. Scott's popularity ; and as some of them
are obviously of a kind to diminish his merit in the eyes
of more fastidious judges, it is but fair to complete this
view of his peculiarities by a hasty notice of such of them

10 as entitle him to unqualified admiration ; — and here it is
impossible not to be struck with that vivifying spirit of
strength and animation which pervades all the inequali-
ties of his composition, and keeps constantly on the mind
of the reader the impression of great power, spirit and

15 intrepidity. There is nothing cold, creeping, or feeble,
in all Mr. Scott's poetry ; — no laborious littleness, or
puling classical affectation. He has his failures, indeed,
like other people ; but he always attempts vigorously :
and never fails in his immediate object, without accom-

20 plishing something far beyond the reach of an ordinary
writer. Even when he wanders from the paths of pure
taste, he leaves behind him the footsteps of a powerful
genius ; and moulds the most humble of his materials
into a form worthy of a nobler substance. Allied to this

25 inherent vigour and animation, and in a great degree
derived from it, is that air of facility and freedom which
adds so peculiar a grace to most of Mr. Scott's compo-
sitions. There is certainly no living poet whose works
seem to come from him with so much ease, or who so

30 seldom appears to labour, even in the most burdensome
parts of his performance. He seems, indeed, never to
think either of himself or his reader, but to be completely
identified and lost in the personages with whom he is
occupied ; and the attention of the reader is consequently


either transferred, unbroken, to their adventures, or, if it
glance back for a moment to the author, it is only to
think how much more might be done, by putting forth
that strength at full, which has, without effort, accom-
plished so many wonders. It is owing partly to these 5
qualities, and partly to the great variety of his style, that
Mr. Scott is much less frequently tedious than any other
bulky poet with whom we are acquainted. His store of
images is so copious, that he never dwells upon one long
enough to produce weariness in the reader ; and, even 10
where he deals in borrowed or in tawdry wares, the
rapidity of his transitions, and the transient glance with
which he is satisfied as to each, leave the critic no time
to be offended, and hurry him forward, along with the
multitude, enchanted with the brilliancy of the exhibition. 15
Thus, the very frequency of his deviations from pure
taste, comes, in some sort, to constitute their apology ;
and the profusion and variety of his faults to afford a
new proof of his genius.

These, we think, are the general characteristics of Mr. 20
Scott's poetry. Among his minor peculiarities, we might
notice his singular talent for description, and especially
for the description of scenes abounding in motion or
action of any kind. In this department, indeed, we con-
ceive him to be almost without a rival, either among 25
modern or ancient poets ; and the character and process
of his descriptions are as extraordinary as their effect is
astonishing. He places before the eyes of his readers a
more distinct and complete picture, perhaps, than any
other artist ever presented by mere words ; and yet he 30
does not (like Crabbe) enumerate all the visible parts of
the subjects with any degree of minuteness, nor confine
himself, by any means, to what is visible. The singular
merit of his delineations, on the contrary, consists in


this, that, with a few bold and abrupt strokes, he finishes
a most spirited outline, — and then instantly kindles it
by the sudden light and colour of some moral affection.
There are none of his fine descriptions, accordingly,
5 which do not derive a great part of their clearness and
picturesque effect, as well as their interest, from the
quantity of character and moral expression which is thus
blended with their details, and which, so far from inter-
rupting the conception of the external object, very power-

lo fully stimulate the fancy of the reader to complete it ;
and give a grace and a spirit to the whole representation,
of which we do not know where to look for any other

Another very striking peculiarity in Mr. Scott's poetry,

15 is the air of freedom and nature which he has contrived
to impart to most of his distinguished characters ; and
with which no poet more modern than Shakespeare has
ventured to represent personages of such dignity. We
do not allude here merely to the genuine familiarity and

20 homeliness of many of his scenes and dialogues, but to
that air of gaiety and playfulness in which persons of
high rank seem, from time immemorial, to have thought
it necessary to array, not their courtesy only, but their
generosity and their hostility. This tone of good society,

25 Mr. Scott has shed over his higher characters with great
grace and effect ; and has, in this way, not only made his
representations much more faithful and true to nature,
but has very agreeably relieved the monotony of that
tragic solemnity which ordinary writers appear to think

30 indispensable to the dignity of poetical heroes and
heroines. We are not sure, however, whether he has not
occasionally exceeded a little in the use of this ornament ;
and given, now and then, too coquettish and trifling a
tone to discussions of weight and moment.


By the Reverend George Crabbe. 8vo, pp. 260. London, iSo"])-

We receive the proofs of Mr. Crabbe's poetical exist-
ence, which are contained in this volume, with the same
sort of feeling that would be excited by tidings of an
ancient friend, whom we no longer expected to hear of in
this world. We rejoice in his resurrection, both for his 5
sake and for our own: But we feel also a certain move-
ment of self-condemnation, for having been remiss in our
inquiries after him, and somewhat too negligent of the
honours which ought, at any rate, to have been paid to
his memory. 10

1 I have given a larger space to Crabbe in this republication than
to any of his contemporary poets ; not merely because I think more
highly of him than of most of them, but also because I fancy that
he has had less justice done him. The nature of his subjects was
not such as to attract either imitators or admirers, from among the
ambitious or fanciful lovers of poetry ; or, consequently, to set him
at the head of a School, or let him surround himself with the
zealots of a Sect : And it must also be admitted, that his claims to
distinction depend fully as much on his great powers of observation,
his skill in touching the deeper sympathies of our nature, and his
power of inculcating, by their means, the most impressive lessons of
humanity, as on any fine play of fancy, or grace and beauty in his
delineations. I have great faith, however, in the intrinsic worth and
ultimate success of those more substantial attributes ; and have,
accordingly, the strongest impression that the citations I have here
given from Crabbe will strike more, and sink deeper into the minds
of readers to whom they are new (or by whom they may have been
partially forgotten), than any I have been able to present from other


It is now, we are afraid, upwards of twenty years since
we were first struck with the vigour, originality, and truth
of description of "The Village"; and since, we regretted

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Online LibraryFrancis Jeffrey JeffreySelections from the essays of Francis Jeffrey → online text (page 7 of 21)